John Woo spent a decade navigating the big-studio minefield — longer than most foreign auteurs last in Hollywood before throwing in the towel. Beginning in earnest with an above-average Jean-Claude Van Damme programmer (Hard Target), Woo then produced one decent facsimile of his hyperkinetic Hong Kong neonoirs (Face/Off), rose to the gilded heights of a Tom Cruise tentpole picture (Mission: Impossible II), and finally bottomed out in 2003 with the fittingly titled Philip K. Dick adaptation Paycheck. The John Woo who made that movie seemed spiritually broken and creatively spent — a shadow of the action maestro whose innovative Sam Peckinpah/Jean-Pierre Melville mashups, The Killer and Hard Boiled, had made an icon out of Chow Yun-Fat and been enshrined by a generation of burgeoning film students.
Woo returned to China — the mainland — to make his latest film, but scale back he did not. Conceived as a two-film epic with a combined running time of nearly five hours (reduced to a single two-and-a-half-hour version for extra-Asian consumption), Woo's Red Cliff is the most expensive movie ever produced in the country, and also the biggest — a third-century battle royale with phalanxes of horsemen and armadas of battleships stretching as far as the eye can see (and, thanks to the CGI paintbox, even farther). The source material is an 800,000-word historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written in the 14th century and as deeply embedded in Chinese folklore as Shakespeare's characters are in the West — rooted in fact, but transfigured over time into something more mythic. And although Woo also turned to the more historically accurate text Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms for inspiration, watching Red Cliff feels like being in the presence of gods who have momentarily deigned to walk upon the earth.
The story is pure David and Goliath: Weakened by corruption and civil war, the Han dynasty has fallen under the sway of a Machiavellian prime minister, Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), who persuades the ineffectual emperor to wage war against a pair of "insurgent" warlords, Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Chang Chen). Prodded by Liu Bei's dandyish military strategist Zhuge Liang (a delightful Takeshi Kaneshiro), and despite a healthy mutual distrust, the two warlords form a tentative alliance and, outnumbered by several hundred thousand, prepare to face off against Cao Cao's imperial army at the titular Yangtze River locale. If you don't know what happens, far be it from me to spoil it for you.
In either version, Red Cliff (which surpassed Titanic to become China's all-time box-office champ) is grand, old-fashioned spectacle in the Cecil B. DeMille tradition, with massive armies wreaking massive havoc against each other in strategically ingenious ways. Early on, Sun Quan's tomboy sister (Zhao Wei) and her coterie of fiercely armed handmaidens lead Cao Cao's forces into a raging sandstorm, where they are in turn blinded by the reflective shields of the rebel soldiers. Later, Cao Cao retaliates by turning the corpses of his typhoid-infected ranks into primitive dirty bombs. And, in one of the most storied episodes of Three Kingdoms lore (and one of the film's most dazzling set pieces), the weather-sensitive Zhuge uses the onset of a thick fog to trick the enemy into gifting his ammo-deprived forces with thousands of recyclable arrows.
Shorn by nearly half, the "international" version of Woo's film — or, as I like to call it, Red Cliff for Dummies — may not be a murdered masterpiece on the order of Heaven's Gate and Once Upon a Time in America, but it's unquestionably a lesser thing: saddled with an introductory voiceover; plastered with supertitles identifying individual characters (which actually have the effect of making the name game more confusing); and, most egregiously, stripped of most of the quieter, character-building scenes that are precisely what are needed to give non-Asian audiences a sense of why these events and their participants have loomed so long and so large in the collective Chinese consciousness. At the risk of advocating movie piracy, I strongly encourage you to purchase the widely available Chinese DVD.
Still, all is not lost: In both cuts, Red Cliff exudes a physical grandiosity that few movies of the past 20 years have attempted — no matter that Woo, even at his best, is still more at ease with down-and-dirty action than epic pageantry. And then there is Woo's Hard Boiled co-star, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, one of the last of the world's great movie stars, here channeling the spirit of Douglas Fairbanks at his most balletic as Sun Quan's magisterial viceroy, Zhou Yu — he seems to glide across the battlefield. Perhaps it's being too coy to suggest that, in the giant-slaying resolve of these underdog warriors, Woo saw something of an analogue for his own recent career. In any event, he lives to fight another day.